This happened yonks ago, but, in typical fashion of late, I’ve been too busy working on a very special London project that I haven’t had a chance to post it!
But here it is, English cake made by master pastry chef Philippe Conticini at my new favourite Marylebone haunt: La Patisserie des Rêves.
I’m standing in a close-knit circle of journalists, food bloggers and cake devotees who are all riveted, eyes fixed like cats on a spot of light as Philippe Conticini, the master baker behind and co-founder of La Patisserie des Rêves, waves a slate plate in front of us. It’s holding a sugar-dusted ball of Paris Brest, a light-as-air pastry that oozes whipped praline cream from its golden, crisp sides. He smiles, explaining the hours and concentration that go into each individual element of the bakeries most popular dessert in heavily-accented English, eyes shining as he watches us watch this lone sphere of pastry perfection before he triumphantly brings down a tiny spoon, tearing the dome in two and revealing its inner centre: a melting hazelnut ganache that tastes like sin. There’s a collective sigh of mutual lust and admiration from the circle focused solely on that piece of butter-filled, sugar-maxed perfection. But that’s exactly what good pastry can do and Philippe makes damn good pastry.
It’s hard to walk past the Patisserie des Rêves without being drawn inside. It’s like magnetism. From the window all you see is a warm, primary coloured glow and a table covered in things that look far too pretty to be edible, enticingly half hidden by blown bell jars suspended on a weighted mechanism from the ceiling. Pushing open the doors and you’re met with the smell of hot sugar and melted butter that floods the part of your brain that controls the appetite. From then on all you can process is one thing: FOOD, EAT!
The first I heard of Philippe’s cake wonderland was last year, when I watched Michel Roux salivating over his particular brand of French patisserie excellence on the BBC. A London branch of the cake empire was officially opened on Marylebone High Street earlier this year and this shop is currently offering something the others aren’t: a Frenchman’s take on classic British cakes, which is undeniably dangerous territory.
French pastry is all about heritage with generations of French bakers who have started on croissants and confiture and moved onto Mont Blancs and the delicately-wrought croquembouche, but trying to recreate the traditional British Victoria sponge, no matter how accomplished you are, is bound to make any English cake-lover and indeed the ranks of the WI bristle in union.
Philippe hasn’t just taken on one British classic, he’s worked his magic on three: carrot cake, Victoria sponge and treacle tart. One of life’s uncompromising perfectionists, he made sure he completed rigorous training before he even started tinkering with recipes, mainly by partaking in an afternoon tea marathon around London and powering through as many as five consecutive teas in as many days. No matter how much you think you like scones covered in lashing of clotted cream and child-sized sandwiches, that takes some dedication.
Incidentally, he politely refused to remember the names of the worst teas he encountered along the way, but was happy to disclose that by far the best treacle tart he tried can be found at The Wolseley. It was so good, in fact, that he redesigned his own treacle dessert around the premise that he could never compete with Matthew Haye’s (executive pastry chef at The Wolseley) version so created a rich, sweet molasses paste to be spread over puffed up, flaky scones instead (the recipe for said scones having been adapted from a collection of British grandmother’s recipes, apparently).
His training continued with cake lessons from food writer and journalist Rose Prince in her own kitchen and his result is surprisingly delightful: a playful take on a picnic sandwich where feather-light layers of sponge are sandwiched with a tender wedge of just-sweet cream and home-made jam as thick and fruity as quince paste. It’s less sweet than our own versions and – like his spin on an under sweet, fruity and dense carrot cake – stupidly moreish.
I’m not sure if these English fancies are enough to tear his loyal Francophile followers away from their daily doses of éclairs and Tarte Tatin, but if the London crowd is in need of a cake palate refresher after working their way through an entire wheel of Paris Brest, these provide an innovative alternative.